Louise Broadhurst, International Head of Oriental Rugs and Carpets at Christie’s London, on two superbly preserved carpets that take us back to the weaving ateliers of Isfahan at the turn of the 17th century
The emperor Shah Abbas was one of the greatest rulers in Persian history. During a reign that lasted from 1587 to 1629, he presided over a golden period in architecture and the arts, which notably also embraced carpet-weaving.
Two rare ‘Polonaise’ carpets — made in Abbas’s capital city of Isfahan at the turn of the 17th century — are being offered in the Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds auction on 2 May. They are woven with a precious silk pile enhanced by extensive use of gold- and silver-wrapped thread.
‘The state of preservation of both pieces is astonishing,’ says Louise Broadhurst, International Head of Oriental Rugs and Carpets at Christie’s London. ‘Those examples that survive today are largely faded in colour and low in pile. These two carpets, however, are extraordinary survivors from the golden era of Safavid weaving in Isfahan.’
Polonaise carpets were first woven in the late-16th century and continued throughout the 17th century, with around 300 surviving today. They’re renowned for their elegant patterns and bright, harmonious colour combinations. The two examples coming to auction date to what is generally considered the finest period of production, the first quarter of the 17th century.
Shah Abbas was very much an internationalist, welcoming foreigners to his empire; he even employed an Englishman, Sir Robert Shirley, as Persia’s ambassador to the courts of Europe. Cordial relations were established, and Polonaise carpets proved popular diplomatic gifts.
‘The royal provenance of the two carpets coming to Christie’s is, in many ways, as impressive as their condition,’ Broadhurst reveals. ‘Although not considered a pair, these carpets remained in each other’s company for more than 400 years.’
Woven in the royal ateliers of one of the greatest shahs, they were presented as gifts to the Elector of Saxony, Augustus the Strong, who would go on to become King of Poland. In 1695 he gave them, in turn, to Count Lothar Franz von Schönborn, Prince-Elector and Arch-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire.
The Schönborn family commissioned a swathe of Baroque buildings across southern Germany, including Lothar Franz’s summer residence, the Schloss Weißenstein (Weissenstein Palace), at Pommersfelden in 1710. This would house one of the largest collections of Old Master paintings in Germany — featuring canvases by the likes of Rubens, Titian and Van Dyck — as well as our two Polonaise carpets.
The carpets would hang on the walls of this opulent palace for the best part of 300 years, which goes a long way to explaining why they remain so well preserved. Among the standout features are the amount of silver-metal thread that remains wrapped around the fragile silk wraps (above), and the richness of the red border (below).
As for the name ‘Polonaise’, it was coined at the Paris World’s Fair in 1878, where a number of examples of this type of carpet belonging to a Polish Prince, Ladislaus Czartoryski, were on display. Many had the Prince’s coat of arms embroidered on them, leading visitors to the mistaken conclusion that these carpets had actually been made in Poland. The misattribution stuck, hence the name ‘Polonaise’ (the French word for ‘Polish’).
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‘This is the first time that these two exceptional carpets have ever appeared on the open market,’ Broadhurst states. ‘They’re pieces of a superior quality whose appeal should be far-reaching. Like a superb piece of Chippendale furniture, a fine Renaissance bronze or a prized Old Master painting, they will appeal to any collector with an interest in masterpieces.’